Sunday, March 25, 2012

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis

The Mighty Miss Malone by Christopher Paul Curtis
published January 2012 by Random House Children's
320 pages (hardcover), Middle Grade

In 1930s Gary, Indiana is where you'll find Deza Malone, a smart and sassy young gal. Nicknamed the Mighty Miss Malone by her alliteration-obsessed father, Deza (pronounced like the beginning of "desert") is just named the top student in her class at the end of the year and is propositioned by her retiring teacher to stay on as a tutee in the upcoming school year. Deza is thrilled at the prospect (as long as her best friend can come too) since she absolutely adores her teacher and also aspires to become a teacher when she grows up. Unfortunately, this doesn't come to pass as Deza's father has been out of work for some time, was in a boating accident, and has now left the family to find work in Flint, Michigan. It's the Great Depression, for sure, and Deza's family is struggling to stay together. After her mother receives notice that she will no longer be needed as a housekeeper for a well-off white family (they're going to travel abroad to escape the Depression, hah!), she decides to take Deza and her older brother Jimmie to Flint too. But they haven't heard from their father lately, and they don't have a reliable way to get there or people to stay with when they do. So, they take it one day at a time and hope for the best.

I don't read a whole lot of historical fiction, but besides the boxing match between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling, this could have been contemporary realistic fiction. We are in our own Depression, and I know students who could certainly relate to the events in this book - their dads living in other cities looking for a steady paycheck, families being torn apart just to make ends meet. But what I love about this book and what makes me want to hand it to each and every one of those kids is the cohesive, tightly-wound family unit. The Malones have a motto - "We are a family on a journey to a place called Wonderful." The parents are kind, encouraging, and wise in the lessons they teach their children. When Deza comes back from the library one day, she asks her parents what it means to be "a credit to your race," as the librarian called her (yes, it hurts me so), and her father so eloquently describes it as a warning growl, letting you know exactly who that person is (and that they are most certainly not on your side). Life lessons are expertly handled with care in this story.

I should also mention that this is no surprise coming from Christopher Paul Curtis. I like to stagger my reading of his books because I just don't think it's fair to all the other books out there (like Phoebe and her oatmeal raisin cookies - Friends reference). His writing is so skillful - how else do I describe it? Luscious? Thoughtful? Masterful? Ooh, some touchy-feely words, I know. But it's just such a pleasure to read. When I hand this book to students, I will cross my fingers that they'll like it, and if they don't, I'll just chalk it up to inexperience. They will someday.

As for me, I thoroughly enjoyed it.



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